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In a matter of seconds, four white police officers from New York City’s elite Street Crime Unit killed Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who had no police record and spoke with a stutter. The killing has generated a growing, organized movement.
The 22-year old victim, a street vendor described as religious and hard working, was struck by 19 of 41 rounds fired by the four officers and died instantly in the vestibule of his apartment building.
Although Diallo was unarmed, the officers said they thought he had a gun, so they fired round after round into the flesh of this young victim because – despite the barrage of bullets ripping his body apart – he would not fall.
Led by political and church figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, protest marches, rallies and civil disobedience actions have taken place in every borough of New York on a daily basis. Sharpton has been joined by civil rights icons, including the Rev. Lucius Walker, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume and National Urban League President Hugh Price, who all voiced their concern over this despicable act of violence. These leaders have called on President Clinton and the Justice Department to end law enforcement officials’ open season on minorities.
“(Diallo) was not a police murder, it was a police slaughter,” said Sharpton. “If a man was put in front of a firing squad, he would not expect to be shot at 41 times.”
“It’s a shame,” said David Dinkins, New York City’s former mayor, who attended Diallo’s funeral. “The burden is on the police to show that they acted properly. Yes, it was racial in one sense. When was the last time you heard of an unarmed white man being shot down like this?”
New York State Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. said, “When I went to the house and I saw how many holes were in the walls, it made me sick to my stomach.”
The shooting has brought renewed scrutiny to the Street Crimes Unit, which has been criticized before for its aggressive tactics. The unit is assigned to seek out and stop crime before it happens. Its motto is “We Own the Night.” News sources report that less than one percent of the more than 400 officers of the unit is black.
Another high-profile Street Crimes Unit case, prior to the Diallo incident, was the mid-January arrest of famed rapper Russell Jones, known to fans as ODB, of the Wu Tang Clan. He and a cousin were shot at eight times by unit members in Brooklyn, who claimed the two men fired at them first. No gun was found, no one was hurt, and thn
Critics of the police force also cited the alleged torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima at a police station in 1997. Four white officers have been charged with attacking the black man, who was sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger.
Neither Mayor Rudolph Giuliani nor Police Commissioner Howard Safir will say anything substantial or do anything about the Diallo case.
In an obvious slap at Mayor Giuliani and the NYPD, Governor Pataki of New York, said “The Diallo incident was so horrendous and so horiffic that it has created a sense of moral outrage, an understandable moral outrage, for all of us.”
Without mentioning Guiliani by name, Pataki added, “Part of governing is being tolerant and listening to criticism and responding appropriately to criticism.”
Pataki concluded, “There is a legitimate fear, particularly among minority groups, that the police can from time to time be too quick to take violent action. This is something we have to be concerned about.”
Giuliani’s reply: “The NYPD is one of the most restrained police departments in the nation.”
The officers who killed Diallo had been looking for a rape-murder suspect when they came upon Amadou going into his apartment building.
“There are some similarities between this individual [Diallo] and the sketch [of the rape-murder suspect] we have,” Commissioner Safir said. “But beyond that – what was in their minds, whether they thought this was the individual – I really don’t know, and it would be unfair to speculate at this point.”
On March 6, the New York Daily News reported that hours after Diallo was shot, the cops ransacked his apartment looking for any “evidence,” like an arrest record, in an attempt to slander his character and somehow justify his death. This is a favorite tactic of the police to clean up their atrocities.
The Daily News also reported that Diallo’s roommates were awakened by the cops and taken to the precinct to be interrogated without being told that Diallo was killed or by whom. Abdourahamane Diallo, Amadou’s cousin, stated, “They wanted to know did he have any enemies, was there anyone who could have done such a horrible thing to my cousin. They never told me he had been shot by the police.” All of the officers doing the interrogating were white.
The official police report of what happened February 4 doesn’t include the interrogations or the search of Amadou Diallo’s apartment. None of the cops who did the shooting have made any statement. On March 29, the grand jury indicted the four officers, charging them with 2nd degree murder.
The death of Diallo has brought together the old civil rights coalition: blacks, Jews, labor, gays and lesbians, liberals and Democrats. They are marching together again. Demonstrations outside police headquarters during the past month have resulted in more than 1,200 arrests. Thousands more have rallied, calling for the suspension or arrest of the four officers and carrying signs that read “NYPD=KKK.” The failure to charge the officers more quickly was other one of the protestors’ major points of contention.
Among those arrested at the demonstration outside police headquarters was Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon. “If we’re not here,” said Sarandon before she was led into custody, singing `We Shall Overcome,’ “what happened is acceptable and normal, and I think that does a disservice to other police.”
Celebrities and spokespersons who chose to participate in the demonstrations and be arrested included actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, retired chief William Bracey, and Democratic party members of Congress Charles Rangel, Nydia Velasquez, Major Owens and Eliot Engel.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the NYPD in the aftermath of the Diallo shooting and the alleged brutalization of Louima. The department is exploring whether there is a “pattern and practice” of racial discrimination by the NYPD.
“We must work together to make sure that we know the best ways, and that we implement the best ways for uncovering any abuse of authority on the part of the limited number of police officers involved in that type of activity,” said Attorney General Janet Reno.
Diallo’s friends and relatives described him as a devout Muslim who did not smoke or drink and loved Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He came to New York two years ago from the village of Lelouma, Guinea, and made his living as a street vendor, selling scarves, hats, socks and videotapes.
“He never had any trouble back in our country with the police,” said his uncle, Mamadou Diallo. “Never! He should not have been killed here by police – he was a hard-working, nice, honest man.”
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Mar/Apr 1999
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